The guesswork, the flim-flam, the nonsense, the evasion, the jingoism—all that ends today. With the handing over of a piece of paper triggering Article 50, the campaign is finally over. No longer are we drifting in a hypothetical space of promises and assertions about the nation’s future, about its bargaining power and ability to “take back control.” All of that is now gone. It’s done. There can be no more tub-thumping statements about what Britain’s future looks like. It’s too late for that now.
Reality has returned—and no matter how well-financed your campaign operation, no matter how well-honed your lines of attack or persuasive your arguments, there can be no escape from its unforgiving glare. Promises made in campaign mode and the reality of delivering them are as we know two very different things. Nationalists such as Nigel Farage have claimed excitedly that 2016 was a year of international political renewal and gives as evidence the twin victories of the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump. In recent weeks, campaign promises made by Trump on immigration and healthcare reform have suffered a headlong collision with the granite-hard foundations of political reality. Reality won. Trump’s administration is in tatters.
Those who urged Brexit on Britain are heading for a similarly sharp interaction with the real world. It will shock them terribly, all the more so because so many who made the “Leave” case did so on the basis of a grievous misunderstanding of Britain’s history and identity. At the core of their argument was the idea that Britain must break free of the shackles of external influence—that we must “take back control”—and return to a former state of liberty, of self-governance and puckish, scrubbed independence—“The UK IndependenceParty.” In this way, a vote for Brexit was nothing less than a vote to restore Britain to its rightful former glory. As Boris Johnson put it in a pre-referendum campaign speech: “If we vote ‘Leave,’ we can take back control of our borders, of huge sums of money, of our trade policy and of our whole law-making system… If we vote ‘Leave’ and take back control, this Thursday can be our country’s Independence Day!”
This nationalistic version of history ignores the fact that Britain has…